Articles and Case Studies

The Good Samaritan

23 Jun 2016

sara bird

by Dr Sara Bird

Good Samaritan

Dr Sara Bird answers a question from an MDA National Member about whether the Good Samaritan legislation covers emergency care provided while under the influence of alcohol.

I was recently the first person on the scene of a car accident. I administered emergency care for the injured driver until the ambulance arrived. I had consumed four alcoholic drinks over about two hours; however, as there was no other medical person around and the man’s condition was serious, I administered basic care. Am I still covered under the Good Samaritan legislation?

Every Australian state and territory has legislation which protects Good Samaritans from liability; however, there are some differences in each jurisdiction with respect to the conditions of, and exclusions from, protection.

In general terms, to be provided with legislative protection from liability, the Good Samaritan must act “in good faith”, “honestly”, “without recklessness” and/or “with reasonable care and skill”.

In all jurisdictions, except Queensland and Victoria, Good Samaritans who are “intoxicated or under the influence of alcohol or drugs” are excluded from the legislative protections from liability.

From your description of the events, I’m not sure if you would be considered to be “intoxicated or under the influence of alcohol”. But it’s interesting to note that even if you were, the Good Samaritan protection from liability would still apply in Queensland and Victoria.

The purpose of the Good Samaritan legislation is to encourage people, particularly health professionals, to assist strangers in need of emergency treatment without the fear of legal repercussions from an error in treatment.

From a professional perspective, Good Medical Practice: A Code of Conduct for Doctors in Australia states:1

Treating patients in emergencies requires doctors to consider a range of issues, in addition to the patient’s best care. Good medical practice involves offering assistance in an emergency that takes account of your own safety, your skills, the availability of other options and the impact on any other patients under your care; and continuing to provide that assistance until your services are no longer required.

From time to time, doctors who are not entirely sober may find themselves unexpectedly called upon to act in an emergency. A doctor who has consumed alcohol would need to consider the extent to which the consumption of alcohol may have affected their ability to provide competent care. At a certain level of alcohol consumption, a given doctor’s performance will deteriorate to a point where the risk-benefit ratio from a particular intervention in an emergency becomes unfavourable. Their judgement may also be impaired.

Ultimately, in a situation where a person is in need of emergency treatment and you are the only person on the scene, or the only person who has medical training, you need to try to balance the risks and the severity of the potential consequences of your intervention or non-intervention.


Dr Sara Bird
Manager, Medico-legal and Advisory Services
MDA National


Reference

  1. Medical Board of Australia. Good Medical Practice: A Code of Conduct for Doctors in Australia. Section 2.5. Available at: medicalboard.gov.au/Codes-Guidelines-Policies/Code-of-conduct.aspx.
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